This is Gracie. Sometimes I call her Grace.
I was ten years old when my father abandoned our family.
After a decade of blatant cheating, volatile confrontations, and a whole lot of gas-lighting, he finally pulled up his tent stakes and moved on.
And while he took with him our emotional and economic stability - not to mention my mother's self-esteem - dear old dad left one thing behind.
An Irish Setter puppy.
The back story, as my mom eventually shared once she managed to unclench her teeth long enough to tell it, was that my dad had grown up with two beloved Irish Setters - first, Lady and later, Duchess - and he wanted to bestow the gift of that experience on his own children.
As he was driving off.
From my point of view, swapping out a narcissistic father for a precious red puppy was an excellent bargain, and I could not have been happier with this turn of events.
But my mom did not want a new dog.
It was too much, too soon.
My mom was stumbling headlong through the darkness of grief and loss. Not content to simply abandon her with a partially renovated house, four young children, the shame of a divorce in 1969, and no prospects for earning a living, my departing father landed one more burden on her shoulders: Here, raise a dog.
My mom had never owned a dog before. She had zero know-how about dogs, and from what I could tell, was not really in a mood to learn.
But the fates had brought this furry angel into her life, so learn she did.
She learned how this happy little fellow lifted her children's spirits and brought laughter back into the house.
She learned how he subtly changed the family dynamic. Our previous family of six, sick and broken, was reinvented and reshaped as a new unit of six, with a contagiously cheerful Irishman - vibrant, alive, and full of love - at the very center.
And as our sweet puppy, Kelly, grew and bonded to her above all others, she learned about the deep and abiding way that good dogs love their people.
Though I'm sure she thought she would never love again, my mom fell madly in love with her dog and her broken heart began to heal.
* * * * *
Or Susan, or Pickles, or Poli which is short for Polar Bear.
Kelly lived a charmed life for ten lovely years, but the inevitable day came. I was at university when my mom called to tell me the dreadful news that he had died; we were both shattered, surely, but I held a tiny unspeakable spark in my grieving heart because I knew that someday, somehow, another charming redhead would make his (or her) way into my life and I would love another dog.
But not so my mom. She didn't come right out and say it, but I could tell by the set of her jaw and the tension in her voice whenever the subject surfaced - there would never be another dog for her.
Years passed. I'd gently revisit the topic from time to time: "Have you thought about getting another?"
Always there were reasons - no kids around to play with a dog, too much of a time commitment to keep him properly exercised, plus that whole hassle of arranging for care when she wanted to pop off to Europe with her friends (which I'm happy to say she actually did do from time to time).
Plus the granddogs started rolling in, and she could enjoy plenty of quality time with these furry kids without shouldering any new responsibilities..
And I got that.
But I also knew without a single doubt that the real reason my mom didn't want to get a new dog - and in fact, never did - was because she could not bear the heartbreak of losing another.
* * * * *
We also call her Swamp Queen, because when she's not daintily napping on pastel pink pillows,
she can sometimes become quite earthy.
It's true. We dog owners all know that we've entered into a Faustian bargain. For a handful of years, we're lavished with the most pure and radiant love imaginable on this earth. And then, with a gentle whimper and one last wag, our beloved companions will depart this life and leave us behind with broken hearts to slowly, slowly mend.
But the only worse reality I can imagine is to live without a dog's love at all.
So I understood my mom's agony, and the pain it must have cost her to lose her dog of dogs, as she always called him.
I really did get it.
But I felt so sad that my mother could not find the emotional strength to fall in love with another dog.
She just couldn't do it.
* * * * *
But mostly, we call her ours, and we are so thankful that she is.
Fast forward to 2017.
After a long and lovely life, my third Irish Setter, Ranger, had just died a hero's death. I was, of course, bereft.
Back before Ranger, when my second dog had passed, I'd needed a full two years to tend to my grieving heart before I felt ready to love a new dog. So this time around, I planned to give myself at least a full 12 months before searching out any wiggly litters.
Coincidentally, my mom had died just 96 days before Ranger.
Imagine my shock when I got a phone call almost six months to the day after Ranger's passing with an urgent request: "There's a Irish Setter here who needs a new home. Can you take her - today?"
My heart trembled at the very words. A new dog? Now?? Too soon. MUCH too soon! My heart is not ready yet.
I did not want a new dog.
But in an instant, a new knowing swept over me. This was my dog. I knew it. The fates had brought us together; she was meant to be mine.
And though I was still stumbling headlong through the darkness of grief and loss, I realized that my broken heart would learn to love her - just as my mom had learned to love Kelly - and everything was going to be okay.
"Yes," I said, "we'll take her."
And to honor my mother who taught me about the power of a dog's love to mend a broken heart, I decided to name our new dog Gracie.
Because my mother's name was Grace.